"'Mother of everyone': The Achievement and Legacy of Muriel Rukeyser" 4/7-11/2010; 9/30/2009

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William Waddell, Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA), 2010 Conference, Montreal, Quebec
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"Mother of everyone," Maxine Kumin calls Muriel Rukeyser in a poem of that title from The Long Marriage (2003), and Adrienne Rich has both explicitly invoked her example in "An Atlas of the Difficult World" (1991) and extolled her talent and commitment in prose comments in her own essays and in an introduction to A Muriel Rukeyser Reader (Norton, 1994). The value and significance of Rukeyser's work is abundantly clear to these two fine poets, born half a generation later and thinking back through their mothers, as Woolf proposed that same decade. But I'm tempted to add to my proposed title: the achievement and legacy and strange disappearance of Muriel Rukeyser: it was possible to study literature in the 70s, as I did, eventually as a specialist in twentieth-century poetry, and never hear her name.

Nor has Rukeyser fared well in the most familiar anthologies. She is absent entirely, for example, from The Contemporary American Poets, edited by Mark Strand in 1969, and from the first edition of Ellmann and O'Clair's Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry in 1973. Subsequent Norton editions include about half a dozen Rukeyser poems, but the editors are only beginning to suggest her energy and range. Rukeyser was a poet whose arguably strongest work—"The Book of the Dead" (1938), for example, or "Letter to the Front" (1944)—doesn't lend itself well to anthologies. "Alloy," the fifteenth of the twenty sections of "Book of the Dead," appears alone in the second edition of the Norton, with no note indicating its original context. The effect is to make it look like a post-Imagist exercise, a study in white and heat. No brief selection could provide a real sense of the astonishing precocity of the long poems of her twenties. Her energetically and explicitly leftist politics were a considerable disadvantage as well, in an era of anti-Stalinist and later Cold War paranoia.

This session aims at an early 21st-century (re)assessment of Rukeyser's poetry, with, I hope, parallel examinations of the lessons about canonicity, feminist intellectual and socio-political trajectories, and influence that her career suggests. What is clear now that wasn't clear fifty years ago and more? And why wasn't it clear? What have the signal efforts of critics and editors like Jan Heller Levi, Janet Kaufman, and Anne Herzog accomplished, and what is left to do?

Anyone is welcome to submit a proposal to a NEMLA session, but all presenters must be members by December 1, 2010.

Please send 300-500 word proposals (Word or pdf attachments) to Bill Waddell, at bwaddell@sjfc.edu by September 30, 2009.